I am standing in the shower brushing my teeth as one does. I think about what I am doing; My hair wrapped in a kitambaa, my head tilted backwards with my mouth open and my tongue out as the water hits my face and the insides of my mouth. I smile. Brushing my teeth has evolved into such a grounding ritual. I don’t always do it this way, but today, I am multitasking, and I am on the gray-er end of the caring spectrum. I am not in any rush or anything. I just think it’s thrilling to brush my teeth this way. Anyway, the process of brushing my teeth is bringing me a certain level of anxiousness as the days roll into one another. I am on my last tube of toothpaste and I don’t know what to do. You might have just thought “Well, go out and buy some more!”
And you are right. Only, I can’t do that.
See, about eight months ago, I found myself in the great Americas and a month after my arrival, I ran out of the toothpaste I had brought with me. I did as anyone would and went out to get an exact replacement. I thought nothing of it as I squeezed it onto my toothbrush and put it in my mouth. As soon as it touched my tongue, I knew something was off. Quickly, I ran to the dustbin where my other tube of toothpaste was and took it out of the bin. Had I bought a different kind of Colgate? Can’t be. I recall cross checking while at the supermarket. I put the two tubes next to each other and examined them. They looked the same, yet something was not adding up. Believe it or not, this caused me such great agony. For the next couple of days, I went about telling everyone I know that the Colgate here is not real and that they were being scammed. You can’t blame me; I was only just starting to figure my way around this place and toothpaste inconvenience is exactly the kind of inconvenience I did not need.
So, two weeks later, I did what had to be done and asked a friend of mine that was coming from Nairobi to New York to bring me three tubes of toothpaste. I sent them numerous photos so they would get the exact kind I wanted. They did. And my life resumed its toothpaste stress-free keel. Fantastic. As the months went by, I would brush my teeth and feel a deep-seated joy; knowing that I have the real deal. And you cannot convince me otherwise. Ask your dentist, they’d agree. I feel bad for everyone else. If I could, I would bring a suitcase full of the real deal and share it here. But customs wouldn’t like that much.
My estimation of exactly how much toothpaste I needed was uncannily and surprisingly very accurate. Towards the end of my semester, about a month before my flight date in mid-May, I had powered through two tubes and had one more to go. I was well on track to having enough toothpaste before I would go home and stock up on more toothpaste. Then the virus happened and now I am about to run out of toothpaste, and I am stuck here and at a loss on what to do. Send help.
Anyway, this was supposed to be the story of my arrival in New York and those precious first moments.
Before I tell you that story, let me tell you about the way my heart has refused to stop aching. See, I am a stubborn lover. I love like the wind- largely and consumingly; tearing things down and sometimes helping to construct them. The other day, I read a Nairobi love story and it rekindled within me the aches from my last love drama. I have not recovered you see, and my heart refuses to move on. After reading that story, I am convinced that come what may, I want a Nairobi kind of love. In my head, a New York kind of love seems pretentious. Like it might leave at any time at the smallest provocation. It seems touristy in the very sense of the word. A New York love would take you out to see the Statue of Liberty or hold your hand in Times Square so that no eyes lock with your behind. A Nairobi love on the other hand is Bata Ngoma shoes and blue denim jeans. It is the dust in your lungs and the chasing of matatus; It is the awkwardness of holding hands at a bus stop in town and the wrestling at the door of a minibus for a double seat; A Nairobi love is telling that stranger on the bus that the seat next to yours is taken. That is what I want. I want to walk downtown amidst pickpockets who can steal your pancreas and you won’t notice until you get home. You see, my love is like that Nairobi love; I love imperfectly, awkwardly, fighting and wrestling but also willing to let you have the window seat in the minibus. A couple of months ago, I found myself in a love drama and it left my heart broken. One day I will tell you this story and break your heart too.
Now, I think back to a simpler time. I remember being twelve years old and my dashing pursuer would be going to the moon and back to put a smile on my face. He was everything my twelve-year-old self ever wanted. He listened to my every whim, he was sweet, and that chapter was magical. Most of our interaction happened online:
Hey, I’m hungry” I would text.
He would then disappear into the nothingness that is the interwebs and reappear moments later in our chatroom.
Bam! He would hit me with the most delicious looking photo of some well whooped up and presented cuisine. On receiving the photo, I would eat with my eyes and express just how much I loved his choice. Then I would request a drink and again, he would disappear and bam! The most inviting looking juice in the world! If I was feeling particularly frisky that day, I would ask for dessert and he would present me with the world’s best-looking ice cream. Or some fruit castle. That was our romance. Straightforward and to the point. I can’t lie to you and say I don’t miss it. No questions asked. If I wanted a whole city, I got it. I mostly wanted food though.
Speaking of pickpockets and downtown Nairobi, no one tells you just how much you will miss Nairobi when you leave. You know this now because you remember the first time you went to Harlem and how much it reminded you of Nairobi. You remember instantly falling in love with the hawkers on the sides of the street and thinking it was just like the familiar scene at rush hour in CBD with hawkers trying to sell you everything including your own bag. Harlem was alive and abuzz unlike your residence up top, and there was a man in the corner playing his drums. You smiled at him when you got close enough. It was in your very first couple of days in New York and you were feeling the pinch of being away from home. Summer was coming to an end; school was speeding up and you felt like the world was closing in on you, so you left and just walked. You happened on Harlem in a kind of serendipitous way. Suddenly, you realised you didn’t feel so out of place anymore. Your back wasn’t crying hide and it had stopped telling you that you were being watched. Suddenly, the people there didn’t notice the dirt on your face that everyone else seemed to be drawn to. It seemed that in Harlem you just were, and it was enough. So, you fell in love. And the feeling was like walking into heaven. As far as the eye could see, the land was covered in a sea of black and it was beautiful. So, you made it a habit to walk down there every time you missed home and were tired of feeling out of place. Or anytime the blandness of life up top bored you and you wanted some flavor in living.
Anyway, here is the story of how I got here in the first place:
There I was in the 5:00 am JKIA chill, saying goodbye to my family. I had my bags on a trolley each of them with a red ribbon tied at the handles. My father handed me a thousand shillings to get my bags wrapped because someone told us that some Dubai folks slash bags open and take things out of them. Such advanced pickpockets. I was not going to risk anyone taking any part of my chosen life treasures away from me, so I got the bags wrapped. Outside the window, my mother alternated between waving frantically and supporting her head with her hands when I was not looking. I tried not to look at them because at this point the tears were stinging in my eyes and I did not want to be the crying girl in the airport that these travelers would go home to tell their wives about.
“Honey, how was your flight?”
“It was fine. Oh! I saw a tiny girl at the airport with three huge suitcases and she was crying. God! It broke my heart.”
“Oh no! Maybe she was being sold”
“You think so?”
“Yeah, child trafficking is real, you know! Maybe, those bags were full of some illegal items.”
That doesn’t sound right. This man’s wife would not say that. That sounds like something my mother would say. “Wambui, I saw a girl at the airport crying. Maybe she was being sold. I read it on WhatsApp how they are selling young girls now.”
That is not the point. The point is that I was not going to allow myself to be the crying girl at the airport who looks like she is being sold and is transporting illegal items. I got through the check in points and went on to the final boarding station. On approaching the desk, now with just my two backpacks, the woman at the desk looked at me and said,
“You have been upgraded to business class.”
I looked at her bewildered. What does she mean? Do I have a sponsor? No. So what is this? How? Why? Maybe I have heard her wrong.
“You have been upgraded to business class.”
Now at this point, I considered just proceeding to the plane because I did not want to annoy the kind lady lest she revoke my upgraded status, but I needed to know why this was happening. Seemed too good to be true. So I asked:
She gave me her reason. I won’t tell you here.
What are the chances! Must be the heavy bags I was carrying earlier. She must have been watching from her spy cameras and seen the burly man following me around asking for a tip because he helped hoist my bag onto the weighing scale. Just like me she must have thought:
“What is wrong with this man? No one asked him to lift the bag!”
I bet she was worried for me as I paced up faster and faster away from the man who was not whispering loudly at me:
“Madam, chai! Madam ni asubuhi.”
As I sped away I was thinking, “Yes kind sir, I know it’s in the morning. And no, I will not be giving you any tea money this morning. I need it all when I get to New York.” It’s like I knew they would be charging for trolleys on the other end. But we both know I wouldn’t be paying for that either. Let’s just agree I am not a bad person and the kind lady at the desk must have watched all this unfolding and decided to let me rest my tired legs in style.
Or maybe I just looked like I needed a hug, so she put me in business class to soothe my heart. I loved it in business class. America really must be the land of charms and great things because it was already happening. So, there I was, sat in my own business class cubicle absolutely free. I was placed next to a sharp looking lady who said she was going on a business trip. I told her my little secret that I did not actually pay for a seat in business class and risked her calling the crew and having me yanked out from her side and put in the back bench of the plane, but she didn’t. Instead, she asked me to hand her my phone so she can take photos of me in my free business class seat.
Things were off to a great start. A couple of naps and sixteen hours of executive service later, I landed in New York and proceeded to go get my bags. I looked around trying to find a trolley to put them in and apparently you have to pay for one. I was not about to pay to push my bags to a door I could see from where I was standing so I kicked and dragged my bags to the exit. I walked from the air-conditioned interiors right into the heaviest air I have ever experienced. It smelt salty and prickly and at first, I was not sure I was still breathing. I quickly flagged down a taxi and hopped in.
In the taxi, I could hardly hear the voice of the Liberian driver telling me about all the African eating spots and his disappointment in African leaders. The thoughts in my own head were far louder than his voice.
“This is it: This is actually it! I’m in New York. As we drove into Manhattan and that majestic skyline rose to meet my eyes, I felt so thrilled and so scared all at once.
But that night was only beginning.
This second post is for Sharon,
Thank you for coming to the airport at 4:00 am to see me off when you had an exam at 7:00 am.
For you, friend does not suffice.